30 June 2008

Gershwin, Schmershwin. Sing Me a Scheffel!

What is Scheffel Hall, the striking German Renaissance building on Third Avenue near 17th Street? And what does "Allaire's" mean?

Well, two questions, two answers. Scheffel Hall was a beer hall named after German balladeer Joseph Victor von Scheffel, of whom I'm sure you've all heard. The East Village, remember, was chock-a-block with our German brothers back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was modeled by the architects after the Friedrichsbau at Heidelberg Castle, I have learned. The interior was covered with murals based on Scheffel's once-famous songs (or, still-famous songs in Germany, perhaps), if you can believe it. What a big noise old Joseph Victor musta been back in his day.

As for the confusing second name, Allaire's, 190 Third Avenue was that, too. Allaire's was a restaurant. In 1909, O. Henry set one of his short story's here, describing it as a "big hall with its smokey rafters, row of imported steins, portrait of Goethe, and verses painted on the walls." During World War I, German spies congregated there and plotted away. Tammany leader Charles Murphy, apparently holding no grudges against either side in The Great War, also held court there. It was later Joe King's Rathskeller, a business which, thankfully, didn't put its name on the facade for good.

After Joe King got out 1969, it became Fat Tuesday's, a premier jazz joint of its days, best known for hosting regular Monday-night gigs by Les Paul. Also playing here: Dexter Gordon, Betty Carter, Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner, Gerry Mulligan, Kenny Barron and many more.

In short, a lot of interesting shit went down at Scheffel Hall!

She Doesn't Even Live Here

An interesting sentence deep within the New York Times' farewell piece to Florent, the timeless Meatpacking District diner that closed for good on Sunday:

Speculation about what would happen to the space next was put to rest, more or less, late last week with the surprising news that the owner, Joanne Lucas, planned to open a diner in the coming days. Ms. Lucas, in an interview from her home in New England, said she had turned down handsome rent offers, and had concluded that she did not have the heart to part with it. The diner, which has been in her family since 1955, would revert to its former name, the R & L Restaurant, and she said she planned to hire some of Florent’s workers.

"From her home in New England"! She doesn't even live here! No wonder she could so blithely shut the place down.

People who own property here should live here. If you're going to play Monopoly with the community, you should at least be part of the community.

Telltale Signs That Your Child Will Grow Up to Be a Landlord

*They charge their friends a quarter an hour to play with their toys.

*Sleepover guests must arrive equipped with their own bed, bedding and foodstuffs for dinner and breakfast.

*Takes out a library card under the name of a shell corporation.

*Charges 50 cents more for their lemonade than kids at other stands do, due to "rising cooling costs."

*Complains about the unions that make Lincoln Logs and Legos as being hopelessly corrupt.

*Favorite scene from literature is when Tom Sawyer tricks others into whitewashing his aunt's picket fence.

*Gets cranky and moody when you visit Grandma in her rent-controlled three-bedroom in a Pre-War on the Upper West Side.

*Keeps asking you when you're going to stop renting and buy a home.

*Knows how to use the word "flip" in a sentence.

*Picks out birthday presents for his friends' birthday parties only after estimating the worth of forthcoming "birthday bag."

*Gripes that the student government at his elementary school ties up kids with unnecessary red tape and discourages the entrepreneur.

29 June 2008

From 12th Street to Atlantic Avenue

Last week, I posted an item about a new used book store coming to Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue.

The other day, I learned that the new store is actually not that new. The proprietor wrote to say, "Saw your blog and I wanted to let you know that it's indeed true. We have been 12th Street Books in Manhattan for 10 years and will hopefully open in early august as Atlantic Books. Thanks for posting the news!"

So, Manhattan's loss is Brooklyn's gain. It usually is.

Joanne Lucas: A Landlord's Landlord

Tonight, the iconic Meatpacking District diner Florent will close its doors for good. But on Tuesday, when it reopens at the R & L Restaurant, it will have the same decor, mostly the same menu and all the same staff members. Everything except beloved owner Florent Morellet.

This was the big news at Eater.com and the other food blogs last week. Back in January, inviting months and months of drama, landlord Joanne Lucas made the unconscienceable decision to kick Florent out of his Gansevoort Street space after 23 neighborhood-transforming years, just so she might get pour some more jack in her pocketbook and help ruin the neighborhood in the process. Then, when no retail chains turned up with the dough she was looking for, Lucas turned around and decided to take the place away from Florent anyway and turn it back into the R & L Restaurant—the diner run by her father at that address, before Morellet arrived.

Everyone was generally stunned by this turn of events. Some called Lucas the canniest landlord ever. Others looked on the bright side, noting that Florent would not completely vanish from the face of New York, since R & L would look and eat much the same as its predecessor.

Me? If I could cast Lucas howling into the flames of Hades, I would.

That landlords are perfidious beings, I know. That they best embody man's inherent inhumanity to man, I well believe. But I have encountered few examples of the profession's grasping, greedy, duplicitous, conniving, feral, amoral, atavistic, pre-ethical, cynical, underhanded tendencies as the heinous double-dealing—at the expense of Mr. Morellet's livelihood, the happiness of thousands of patrons, and the general cultural health of the City—of Ms. Joanne Lucas (may her name ever live in infamy). She rolled the dice for the hell of it, and Mr. Morellet lost his mission in life. Blood colder than hers no snake ever had.

When asked by Eater why Florent isn't involved in the new restaurant, Lucas responded, "Florent from what I understand is moving on to a new chapter in his life." Yes, Bitch: Because you forced that chapter on his ass by kicking him to the curb!

Florent himself struck a more generous note: "I'm not totally surprised. There's something very special about this neighborhood in the Meatpacking District...the property has been in the family with Joanne for three generations and they have an emotional relationship with the building. I was curious to see what would happen when push came to shove with Joanne when the big bucks came to the door. It would have meant tearing down the inside...This was not a decision based on capitalism."

I am not as forgiving as Mr. Morellet. I wish Lucas nothing good. I love the space, I love its history, but may she never have a day of luck with it. May the pipes burst every winter and the air-conditioning break every summer. May the DOH shut R & L down every month. May Florent's customer base abandon her. May her home in the City be infested by bedbugs and her summer house be swallowed by the ocean. And may the New York Times, New York magazine and Gourmet—having been suckered into granted Florent's lengthy tributes based on its fading into the sunset—never bestow upon R & L a drop of ink.

28 June 2008

A Good Sign: Elliott Pharmacy

"Over 1,000,000 Prescriptions Filled." "Superbuy." "Ethical Apothecary." This Third Avenue store's got phraseology to burn. And for added interest: the shop's name is spelled two different ways: Elliott and Elliot.

27 June 2008

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to Rocco Restaurant?"

Rocco Restaurant is a sleepy presence on a bustling block of Thompson Street that features the ever-crowded Tomoe Sushi and Lupa. Rocco is never that busy, but it doesn't seem to care. It has its following and its been around a lot longer than any other restaurant on the street. I imagine it figures it will still be around when those other eateries go.

Rocco was not a culinary revelation the way previous Who Goes There? subject like Chez Napoleon were. The food was about as mediocre as I expected. (I have heard that under the original owners, the food was fantastic. Sigh. I will never know for sure.) It was more the atmosphere I relished. A lazy air when it was possible to lead a lazy existence in the Village.

26 June 2008

The Strangest Building in Downtown Brooklyn

The dingy stretch of Court Street running through downtown Brooklyn is rich with architectural weirdness—much of it none too savory—but 93 Court Street takes the cake in my book. What's this narrow Tudor manor straight out of Stratford-upon-Avon doing next to Bruno Hardware, lending shelter to a grimy deli and bail bondsman? The building's details render it even more out-of-context than it already is: a steeply pitched, shingled roof, a slender chimney climbing to the sky, a small, leaded-glass window near the top, some half-timbering and a coat of arms.

I've always been tempted to credit the building to a vulgar developer with some grand ideas about himself. So I was somewhat stunned when I learned that the rather absurd little building was the work of actual accredited architects who chose the design for their working headquarters. Architects Samuel Malkind and Martyn Weinstein built it in 1927. The "M" and "W" in the coat of arms are their initials. The below photo, printed when the New York Times did a study of the building a few years back, reveals the the effect was much more splendid back in the day.

But I still don't get it. In the 1920s, the heyday of Art Deco, this sort of twee affair is what Malkind and Weinstein thought would attract clients? Don't get me wrong—I like the building—but even back then it must have seemed horribly old-fashioned and fuddy-duddy-ish.

Anyway, the two only stayed in partnership for two years after the building was complete, leaving 93 Court Street to be occupied by lesser business concerns for the next 78 years.

Atlantic Avenue Reveal

Breaking some sort of land speed record, Two Trees has removed all the scaffolding and crap from in front of that luxury rental complex they've been building on Atlantic Avenue. The unobstructed view reveals that the thing is basically completed. Took 'em about six months to do it. PDQ, as they say. (Work on Trader Joe's next door, meanwhile, remains the tortoise to this hare.)

It doesn't look absolutely terrible. The brick color is somewhat in keeping with the neighborhood. It's very window-y. The bands of vertical glass give the structure a modicum of style you don't see in most new residential units. Keep in mind, however, that these mildly positive comments do not erase the fact that this is basically crapitecture. Which it is. I understand some merry little bulkheads are on the way.

A Good Sign: Blue Box/Red Box Truck

OK, I know this isn't a sign, but the side and back of a truck, but I'm sorry: the Blue Box and Red Box tape logos are such a study in awesomeness, I feel they merit the bending of a rule or two. The graphics for this product are so simple yet stylish my eyes start to dance whenever I see them. This is the sort of design that is so durable, so evergreen, you never need to change the look of the product. The success of the look is all the more remarkable because it's in service of such unglamorous products: gummed tape, and reinforced gummed tape. Did Andy Warhol ever paint these? If not, he missed a golden opportunity.

25 June 2008

Welcome to Third Avenue. Now Drink!

I like Third Avenue in the 20s. For whatever reason, the area has not been much built up in the real estate boom of the last decade. It's still low scale and feels very New York, a jumble of humble and homely businesses. And bars. Every neighborhood in New York has its contingent of Irish pubs. But on this stretch of Third Avenue, you won't be troubled with walking more than a block to find one. And that's on both sides of the streets, too! East side, West side, Guinness is on tap. That way, if you have an argument with the bartender, you can always take your business across the street!

Here are a few of said bars. Paddy McGuire's seems to be in a year-round Yuletide mood. Plug Uglies, named after a vicious 19th-century gang, is a "drinking establishment." Ironically, it's a hangout for cops. The Copper Door Tavern has, yes, a copper door, and has some competition directly next door in the form of the Black Bear Lodge. Molly's is going form the croft house look; there's a fireplace inside. I'm guessing this strip is jumping on St. Patrick's Day.

A Good Sign: Warshaw Hardware

Hardware stores seem to be among the most tenacious of Manhattan's older business concerns. Warshaw Hardware on Third Avenue and 20th Street has been hanging on since 1928, the year before the Crash.

24 June 2008

Never Closed and Better, Too

There's much to provoke the curiosity in the strangeness that is M.T. Food Inc. of Third Avenue in Manhattan. Firstly, there's the crudely bold sign, with its huge M. and T., signifying we know not what. Then there's the idea that what is essentially a small deli needs to put a ponderous "Inc." at the end of its name. And don't overlook the clock which boasts "Never Closed." This may explain why the clock face had no hands (if the store doesn't close, who cares what time it is?), but it doesn't explain why the "12" on the clock has been replaced by an "S" (for "Sunrise" and "Sunset"?).

But this is all next to nothing when one ventures inside and see the walls are lined with framed pictures of famous people. This in itself is nothing special; many New York stores have such pictures, usually signed, with some accompanying sentiment of good wishes. These photos are not signed. And each one is adorned with the same gold plaque, reading "Better." Andy Warhol, Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley, Steve McQueen, Peter O'Toole, JFK—dozens of pictures of the greatest achievers in every field of endeavor. All "Better."

Better? Better than what? I asked the workers gathered at the cash resister. "They're better. You're best," said one man. Huh? He explained that the previous owner of M.T. hung them up and the customer-flattering joke is these great personalities were "better," but whoever was looking at them—and buying goods at M.T.—was "best." At least that's the way I understood it.

In a City of eccentric shops and shopkeepers, this display is truly one of the most exceptionally weird phenomena I had ever encountered.

A Good Sign: Joe Junior Restaurant

Great old diner at the corner of Third Avenue and 16th Street. Not sure of its birthdate, but based on the class "Steaks Chops Seafood" line, I'd have to say it dates at least to the 1950s. The happy kid licking his chops makes it.

No One Here, Not Even Us Chickens

This poultry slaughtering plant on Union Street near Columbia in Brooklyn has been there for a long time (check out the sign). I'm so used to the thing that I haven't really taken a close look at it in years. (And who would want to take a close look at a slaughterhouse anyway?) But I did the other day, attracted by the For Sale sign, as well as evidence that there were bushes growing inside.

Whaddaya know? At some point, someone gutted this building, leaving only the facade and white tile walls on either side. No roof, no inner walls, no nothing. And it must have happened a while back since nature has had a chance reclaim sections of the ground, shooting up through cracks in the cement. I guess when a structure's been bathed in bird blood for decades, you pretty much have to set off a construction atom bomb inside if you're gonna convert it to any other use.

Not What You Usually See

This blog usually thinks of Duane Reade as one of 21st-century New York's Visigoths, trampling history underfoot as the company erects more and more megastores. But this old remnant of a sign, near Chambers Street downtown, reminds us that even today's chains can go the way of the dinosaur. Also, that Duane Reade has been around since 1960. Hm. I feel so much more warmly toward a dead Duane Reade than I do a live one.

22 June 2008

Book Store Coming to Atlantic Avenue

Bank of America coming to Atlantic Avenue. Trader Joe's coming to Atlantic Avenue. Dunkin' Donuts coming to Atlantic Avenue. These are all statements that make sense in today's Brooklyn—the kind of news we've gotten used to.

But Used and Rare Book Store coming to Atlantic Avenue? That's a little unexpected. But that's what the little handwritten sign in the window at 179 Atlantic says. And I couldn't be happier if it turns out to be true. The strip needs such a business. The closest used book stores are on Montague deep in Brooklyn Heights and over on Columbia across from the docks.

Why Must There be an IKEA Truck?

I'm beginning to feel assaulted by the tidal wave of IKEA advertising. The bus shelter ads. The billboards. That bizarre assemblage of boxes on Houston and Broadway. And now this rolling, house-like advertisement, which blocked my view on Court Street the other day. You can't see the message on the roof (actually it's hard to read, period), but it says something about how you can buy the living room set in that glass box for $1,200 and change. It's the most trite assemblage of processed crapiture you'd ever want to see. I wouldn't spend $12 for it.

The Signs You See on the Way to JFK

Never mind your dirty carpets and foreclosure worries! The sign to pay attention to is the one in the middle: "Coconut Water. For Every Occasion." Every occasion. Birthdays. Anniversaries. Funerals. For drinking. For bathing. To wash dishes or clothing. To water your lawn. OR, to clean those carpets and upholstery!

I'm afraid, however, coconut water won't help you with your foreclosure problems.

20 June 2008

New Shades of Arturo's

The new awnings at the 51-year-old Arturo's pizzeria look pretty sharp. But there's something to be said for the character of the older specimens (below). At least they kept true to the color scheme. And they didn't touch the hand-painted lettering in the windows.

The Village Gate Sign Is Alive and Well

The nicest thing the CVS pharmacy chain ever did is not take down the old Village Gate sign from this Greenwich Village corner of Thompson and Bleecker Street. Art D'Lugoff famed club, opened in 1958, hasn't been here at 158 Bleecker Street since 1993. And it's unclear of the theatre that took its place, the Village Theatre, is still in operation.

19 June 2008

Some Stuff That's Interesting

Plans for the Cheyenne Diner's relocation to Red Hook are coming together.

The MTA sucks, as usual.

AMNY's Ten Ugliest Buildings in NYC. I've could have come up with a list of 100 in under 10 minutes.

A developer of South Street Seaport wants to make one of AMNY's future lists.

An old library in Bed-Stuy reopened after a $2 million renovation.

Remembering Hamberger

As the clock ticks down on the life of the Hamberger Christmas display factory on Warren and Hicks Street, I thought—before it's converted into rubble to make room for more condos—it would be a good idea to take a moment and contemplate what will be lost. Helping me in this is a good friend who lives near the building and, due to her attachment to the old factory, has sleuthed out various facts about the address' long history.

Most of us know the red-brick edifice at the former producer of mechanized elves and bunnies that animate holiday window displays. It was founded in 1922 by David Hamberger. The Hamberger family employed many people from the neighborhood; a few of the descendants of these employees actually still reside on the block today.

Prior to the Hamberger days, however, is was the gymnasium for St.Peters Church on Hicks Street, which was built by prolific church architect Patrick Charles Keely. Rumor has it that The New York Knicks practiced in the gym prior to becoming an NBA team. It was also, at one time, a recreation destination called the Brooklyn Lyceum, where dances were held. Our amateur historian encountered one lady who said she met her husband at such a dance. Brownstones used to stand on either side of the building, but they were torn down in 1942 to prepare for the BQE.

Hamberger sold out in the early '90s to Center Stage Productions and moved out of Brooklyn. He's still alive and well today in Queens. I found a couple of photos of the company's handiwork below.

18 June 2008

Terrapins and Terns

As part of my long-term scheme to visit and explore every part of New York City, I recently accepted an invitation to canoe around the Jamaica Bay, the protected lagoon down by JFK airport that most people don't know exists. Since a good chunk of these wetlands are lost every year, the area neatly dovetails with the general mission of Lost City.

The water isn't what you'd call pure. It has a brackish smell, which may emanate from sewage or dead organic matter, or both. But one gets uses to it after a bit. There were a lot of fishermen on the shore. Fishing for what, I can't imagine. The water never gets terribly deep and the various shores and isles are choked with grasses and reeds. Waterfowl are abundant. Hawks, seagulls, terns, sandpipers, geese, swans, ducks, cranes, herons and some others I couldn't identify. And terrapins! At first I said it was a turtle, until I saw a sign saying the area was a terrapin nesting ground. So, terrapins! And Parks Department terrapin-watch people, who roam around looking for terrapins. (We pointing them in the right direction.) And some freaky looking Horseshoe Crabs, which couldn't look more prehistoric. Plenty of dead crabs on the shore as well, the shells resembling World War I helmets.

The snaky little trails that run through the marshland are fun to explore, and occasionally you find the spooky hulk of an abandoned boat. You wouldn't expect to find cacti in New York, but some Prickly Pear were in evidence. It rained about halfway through our trip, which made the canoeing all the more exciting.

Southside Goes South

The Southside Cafe on W. 47th Street appears to have suddenly folded. The interior has been swept clean of furniture, pictures and wine. No sign was posted in the window saying it had closed, but no one answers the phone. The 14-year-old old, hole-in-the-wall Italian eatery was a favorite secret of theatregoers. It dependably furnished an affordable and good meal in an intimate, unpretentious environment.

I asked a couple of the Southside's neighbors what had happened, and they seemed as stunned as I by the closure. They didn't know the restaurant had shuttered.

The Southside was no landmark, but Times Square has lost another affordable, independent restaurant. And that's not good.

A Stormy Day

I took this shot at the corner of 27th and Lexington on Monday night, just before a heavy downpour commenced.

No Room for La Cote Basque in Benoit-Land

For years after the legendary French restaurant La Cote Basque went out of business, the small, cursive neon sign for the eatery remained on the side wall of 55th Street space, reminded all passersby of what was lost. It stayed there during the life of Brasserie La Côte Basque, the restaurant's descendant. But there appears to be no room for the memory of the La Cote Basque of Henri Soule and Truman Capote fame in the Benoit of Alain Ducasse. The sign has finally come down and has been replace by a Benoit sign. I hear Benoit is an excellent restaurant. Still, sigh.

16 June 2008

Hallo Beijing?

The best food cart in the City, bar none, is also the only one to boast a Luftansa umbrella. It's the Hallo Berlin vendor at 54th and Fifth Avenue, the outdoor outpost of the German food Manhattan mini-chain run by Rolf Babiel and his brother Wolfgang. From this cart, which always inspires a long line of patient New Yorkers and tourists around lunch time, a wide variety of beef, veal and pork wurst can be had (knock-, brat-, alpen-, etc.), as well as superb sauerkraut, goulash, and fried potatoes. Two vendors, who—if they aren't the Babiels themselves, must be from central casting over at Actors' Equity, so utterly German are they—cheerfully serve up the grub, chirping "10 dollar!" and "8 dollar!" and "No ketchup here. Mustard." and "Only for you. For nobody else." The cart is the most orderly and pristine I have ever spied in New York City.

As I was waiting for my Fifth Avenue Special recently (two wursts, chopped up, mixed with potatoes, cabbage and onions), I heard the head vendor talk about how all the world wanted him and his food and he wouldn't be at the corner forever. I didn't completely get the gist of his meaning, but the general idea is that the cart was wanted elsewhere across the globe and he was going on a world tour. He would sell sausage in Beijing for the coming Olympics. From there he would go to Rio de Janiero for a spell. The upshot was we would be without the cart for a number of months, but he would eventually return. From the unsmiling look on the face of Hallo Berlin's neighboring hot dog vendor (not much business there), he would be perhaps the only New Yorker who would be glad to see the Babiels take a vacation.